Don Van Vliet, AKA Captain Beefheart, has died.
Long live the Captain.
Long live the Captain.
I didn't get my license until I was 19... so I used to get rides to high school with my dad. We'd drive in his '88 White Toyota Corolla (that's OOF OWF to ya'lls) and listen to cassette tapes of dubs he'd done of his old record collection. This is where I first heard such future favorites as "Box of Rain" by the Grateful Dead, "All Along The Watchtower" by Jimi Hendrix, "Camarillo Brillo" by Frank Zappa and "Positively 4th Street" by Bob Dylan. It was on one of these car rides that he first showed me Captain Beefheart. The Captain was a favorite from his college days and he showed me two songs that were among his favorite in the whole world : "This is The Day" from Unconditionally Guaranteed and "Tropical Hot Dog Night" from Shiny Beast.
For YEARS, I thought "Tropical Hot Dog Night" was the weirdest song in the world. Stranger than strange lyrics and the backing band sounded like they were stumbling backwards through a samba parade. The song in general sounded like it was telling the wackiest joke ever. On top of it all, Captain Beefheart sounded like a Muppet with mad cow disease.
Obviously, nobody at High School gave a shit about Captain Beefheart. Some of my friends knew about him cause he sang "Willie the Pimp" on Zappa's Hot Rats album, but that was it. It was just strange music and I was the only person in the world who knew about it. As a matter of fact, I remember once I read a quote in some magazine where Trey from Phish said "Tropical Hot Dog Night" was one of his favorite songs ever and it blew my mind that someone else knew about Beefheart!
Whenever I tried to show "Tropical Hot Dog Night" to people, they'd just glare at me and get angry that I was playing such annoying crap. Heck, at this point I wasn't even sure what I thought about "Tropical Hot Dog Night". I appreciated how it was odd, bizarre and impenetrable but I wasn't sure if I REALLY liked it yet at that point. The music had a veneer of novelty, as if it was too weird to be really true.
I think my dad and myself are part of only a hand full of people on earth that really love "Unconditionally Guaranteed". The more I researched Beefheart, the more I found that the album was pretty much universally loathed by all his fans for being too "pop" and too "smooth". I guess I understand why that would be... After all, here was the dude who laid down "Lick My Decals Off, Baby" and "Frownland" playing smooth, laid back AM radio music with the dudes from BREAD! Might be a tough pill to swallow for some....
...But I don't care! I love the album and after all these years, I still think "This is the Day" is one of the most beautifully haunting songs I've ever heard. The album wasn't released on cd for years, so for the longest time the song only existed to me on vinyl. In other words, I only heard it when I would hang out with Grant Boardman, a friend who had a record player. (I have many fond memories of listening to the vinyl at Grant Boardman's house: black light, candles, shitty orange carpet and all. The music still evokes that room EVERY time I hear it.) The fact that it wasn't easily accessible and existed only on an outdated form of media created a spectral feel to the music. Fleeting, like an old memory. Also, I knew it was one of my dad's favorite songs, and Unconditionally Guaranteed was one of 3 record albums he brought with him when he dropped out of college and headed west. I think the combination of a unique back story, the fact that the album was out of print and the sweeter nature of the music created a sort of aura to the album that I always found compelling. It was like the tender feelings of my young parents preserved in amber. It was also an interesting balance to "Tropical Hot Dog Night". "This is the day" sounded like the same monster that was barking on "Hot Dog", but now he was sad and lamenting love long gone. A poignant example of seeing the sensitive side of the bizarre.
Either way, these two songs established an emotional and intellectual connection with the Captain that came to full fruition in years to follow.
When I got to college, I became obsessive about discovering new music. I was always asking people about what music they were into, downloading albums in bulk and trying to learn as much as I could about rock history. As I became exposed to artists like Os Mutantes, Fela Kuti and Syd Barrett, I started to realize that my musical tastes generally steered towards the direction of the more bizarre, outer reaches of rock music. It became obvious that "weird" was what I liked. So, inevitably I began to come across Beefheart's name more often and gradually got exposed to more of his music.
In the latter part of my college time, I moved into a house with some of the members of my band and it was there that I (we) started to really get into avant garde music. We spent hours and hours making experimental recordings - sound collages, white noise, atonal jams, you name it. In this environment, Trout Mask Replica became a very important musical reference point and the first full Beefheart album that I personally got into for my own reasons. The fearless spirit of Trout Mask Replica was extremely influential to my band mates and I and informed much of our experimentation. Heck, we even covered "Moonlight on Vermont" for a while. (Apologies for the kinda brutal sound quality... but that's SEX WITH JON for ya.)
Eventually, I graduated from UCSC and moved to San Francisco. While I didn't get over Captain Beefheart, for a while he stopped being something that I referenced constantly. While still retaining a desire for progressive, forward looking music, I was no longer spending most of my time actively wading in the choppy waters of the avant garde. He was with me more and more in spirit and not in active practice...
Then, one day last year a good friend of mine showed me how to do BitTorrents. (If you don't know what it means to do a BitTorrent, it's basically the reason why no musicians can make money anymore off their recordings.) Long story short, I soon found myself with the full Captain Beefheart discography. As I started to revisit old favorites and dig through all the tracks I hadn't yet heard, it started to dawn on me: This was music that was crucial to ME.
This wasn't just music that I was intrigued by or that I thought was technically important... This was music that I profoundly connected with! Music that I really loved! I realized how his whole body of work was a vast treasure trove of brilliant ideas that pointed in a thousand directions... most of which had yet to be explored! It was (in my mind) the very definition of artistic bravery. It showed how much was left to be found out. It was music that STILL sounds like it was made tomorrow.
I may be venturing into hyperbole, but this is REAL TALK here, yo. I loved his weird music AND I also loved his simpler, more melodic music. I liked his simple, brutal blues work outs AND his obtuse, intricate compositions. I loved the musical complexity AND I also loved his abstract lyrics and surreal word play. I loved the fact that the dude who made "This is the Day" also made "Pena". (Seriously, marinate for a moment on what those two songs say about the scope Beefheart's music covers. It's staggering, yo.)
When I listen to his music, I feel like I'm able to go to a place of limitless creative fertility. It's like sitting in a garden where you can watch the most incredible flowers blossoming right before your very eyes. The longer you're in the garden, the more incredible the flowers are that you see. The day after he died, I sat in my room and listened to Trout Mask Replica front to back and I was knocked out (like I've been many times before in my life) at how singular that album is. He had forged a completely new musical (and lyrical!) vocabulary that was wholly separate from everything that came before it (and after). Yes, you can hear elements of things like Howlin' Wolf, Ornette Coleman, Stravinsky, Shakespeare, et all but these elements are so disembodied that the music transcends mere pastiche. It's like genetic recombination. It's musical mutation. A wholly new organism with it's own distinct characteristics and DNA.
This is tip of the ice-berg type material. I could ramble for much longer about Beefheart. I could talk at length about all his albums, his side men, and I haven't even touched on the fact the he was a painter for much more of his life than he was a musician (and a damn good one too. SHEESH!). But, I will say that I the man made a whole self contained universe with his art and it's a universe I can go to whenever I want and feel a unique and special kind of freedom and inspiration. For that, he'll always be huge in my mind.
R.I.P. Don Van Vliet (January 15, 1941 – December 17, 2010)
P.S. - a couple more crucial Beefheart videos from YouTube. Never enough.